Paul Higham looks at the latest odds and big talking points from the schedule release for the new NFL season, as Tom Brady faces his old mentor Bill Belichick.
"Tom Brady facing Bill Belichick will be the biggest, most-hyped and most-watched regular season game in NFL history. The two men built the dominanat Patriots but now we get to find out who was the real mastermind behind it all."
The new NFL season will open up with a blockbuster meeting between Super Bowl champs Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys on 9 September - what a way to start the biggest season ever!
The eagerly-anticipated NFL 2021 season schedule release threw-up some choice match-ups for Week One and beyond as the hype train already starts to gather momentum, with Brady's bunch trying to repeat, an extra 17th game added to the schedule and the future of the reigning MVP all big topics of discussion.
There's also Brady's return to New England to face Bill Belichick and the Patriots to look forward to pretty early in the campaign, in what will be the biggest regular season game in history.
Bucs kick-off season against Dallas in Week One highlight
The Bucs became the first team ever to win a Super Bowl in their home stadium, and now Raymond James Stadium will host the season kick-off, as Brady, the Benjamin Button of the NFL, starts his campaign for an eighth championship ring.
Tampa Bay have opened up as 6.5-point favourites against the Cowboys - America's Team playing will ensure a huge audience for the game, and they'll bring a dangerous team with them too with quarterback Dak Prescott returning from injury.
Prescott was averaging a jaw-dropping 422.5 passing yards a game when he fractured his ankle in Week Five last season, but he's back with a huge new contract and a point to prove. Big D also went big on defence in the draft and brought in a new defensive coordinator. They could, at last, be a danger this season.
Other Week One highlights see the Kansas City Chiefs host the Cleveland Browns in a repeat of their epic play-off game last January, the Chiefs are 5.5-point fancies at Arrowhead but this one could be even closer.
Top draft pick Trevor Lawrence has never lost a regular season game throughout his entire high school or college career, and he could well get off to a winning start for the Jacksonville Jaguars as they face the hapless Houston Texans, at the start of the biggest rebuild in the league, as 1.758/11 favourites. That's a price worth taking now.
It's a big IF right now, but if Aaron Rodgers remains in Green Bay then the Packers may not be as big as 2.111/10 to win their opener in New Orleans. The Pack have improved on a team that's been to back-to-back NFC title games - even drafting a receiver for Rodgers at last! If they can keep him happy on the team then they'll go deep again.
Chiefs & Bucs still Super Bowl favourites
The two Super Bowl protagonists remain at the head of the betting to lift the Lombardi Trophy in Los Angeles on 13 February 2022, with the Chiefs seemingly learning their lesson by beefing up their offensive line following Patrick Mahomes' beating by Tampa Bay.
The Chiefs are 6.05/1 ahead of the Buccaneers at 7.513/2 in the Super Bowl betting but if anything it should probably be the other way around given Tampa Bay's wonderful business this off-season.
Not only have they kept Tom Brady around, but they're the first Super Bowl winners since the 1977 Oakland Raiders to keep every single one of their 22 starters around for the following season. It's an incredible effort from general manager Jason Licht and as they kept improving last season, a full summer of practice should see them return as an even better team this season.
Having drafted talented QB Trey Lance, the San Francisco 49ers are being backed to respond to last year's injury-hit campaign as 1312/1 joint third favourites alongisde the Buffalo Bills - who in QB Josh Allen also have the third favourite for the MVP award at 1211/1.
It's a long time since the Patriots were as big as 2625/1 to win a Super Bowl, but they're also in a tough division and while their win total may go up, they'll have a tough time making the play-offs.
For the last 31 straight seasons at least four teams have made the play-offs who missed out the previous year though, so be on the look-out for a few dark horses to make post-season runs. Top of the list is Miami, who are 2625/1 to win the Super Bowl but would be worth backing to at least make the post-season, while Arizona have brought in JJ Watt to join their other big names and could upset the NFC West to get into the big dance.
At 4140/1 a Super Bowl win seems beyond them, but they will ruffle a few feathers.
Big games to watch out for in 2021 NFL season
Only one place to start right? This will be the most hotly-hyped and likely most-watched regular season game on record - everyone wanted to know was it Belichick or Brady carrying that Patriots side to Super Bowl after Super Bowl after Super Bowl - and now we get a straight answer! Well, we won't really as Tampa Bay obviously have a better team right now, but it's mouth-watering regardless.
Belichick is a defensive mastermind and has brought QBs down throughout his career, if one man knows how to disrupt and discombobulate Brady than it's the cloaked, hoodied dark overlord of Foxborough. It comes just late enough for Belichick to stand a chance of having his new influx of free agents and draft class on the same page, but not too late to risk Brady being injured (can you imagine!).
The Bucs are 3.5-point favourites, and 1.51/2 on the money line and rightly so, there may be a bit of movement on the Patriots being 2.68/5 if they start well - punters will be nervous about what evil scheme Belichick will have in store for his old buddy. Make no mistake, these two friends for life are two of the most competitive beings on the planet - this is a must win for both of them.
It's a tough start for the Chiefs, who host the Browns before visiting the Ravens in what is becoming a tremendous rivalry between the two teams and two MVP-calibre quarterbacks. Mahomes is 5.59/2 MVP favourite with opposite number Lamar Jackson drifting out to 1514/1 - that will not last if the MVP from just three seasons ago starts like he can.
They're two of the most electrifying QBs to have ever played the game, with Mahomes' superior play-off production being the main difference - Jackson has not quite managed to get over that hump as yet.
KC are just one-point favourites for this clash, which could be a statement win for Baltimore. Mahomes, though, is a perfect 10-0 in September games in his career, and is yet to throw an interception in the month!
Jaguars v Cardinals/Bengals (26 September & 1 October)
Trevor Lawrence has made the Jaguars watchable again, even without throwing a ball yet, and if we want to know just how good he can be then these two back-to-back games against the two QBs who preceeded him as the No.1 overall draft picks should be a great yard stick.
Lawrence, a deserved 3.7511/4 favourite for offensive rookie of the year, will get to measure himself against Kyle Murray and Joe Burrow - more importantly, we'll get to measure the young QBs in consecutive weeks.
Murray brings the Cardinals to Florida after a promising couple of seasons and as sneaky 6.511/2 outsiders to win the NFC West they should make things closer than those odds suggest.
Joe Burrow could be a shout for comeback player of the year as he returns from a bad injury to try and improve the Bengals - and he should do just that if the offensive line can keep him safe. It looks like two losses for the Jags to me on paper but they'll be two interesting games in Lawrence's development.
NFL International games in London return
Jets @ Falcons (7 October) & Dolphins @ Jaguars (14 October)
Three of the top four picks in the draft will be gracing Tottenham's new stadium as the NFL International games return to London, with baby-faced QB Zach Wilson looking to prove he is the man to finally make the Jets relevant as they go up against veteran Matt Ryan and what should be an explosive Atlanta Falcons offence.
Watch out for tight end Kyle Pitts, the highest ever draft pick for a player in his position, who is a freakish athlete and could break all kinds of records if he hits the ground running.
We'll know a lot more about who Lawrence and the Jaguars are by the time they hit London for the second game, and in a dangerous Miami side this Florida derby will be a tough assignment. Second year QB Tua Tagovailoa is expected to improve and after they just missed out on the play-offs last season, coach Brian Flores is determined to get them in this time around.
Packers @ Chiefs (7 November)
The pick of the 17th games added to the schedule this year, this could, and some people thing should, have been the Super Bowl match-up last season, before Tom Brady got in the way!
Patrick Mahomes v Aaron Rodgers is a five-star match-up and NFL marketing dream, they couldn't have chosen a better extra game to stage - now all we need is Rodgers to remain with the Packers long enough to get this game on.
Mahomes and the Chiefs against Jordan Love just doesn't have the same ring to it.